The Closet Is Real, and It’s Bad
March 19, 2013 1 Comment
Not that we need science to convince people that concealing key aspects of your identity can be unhealthy, but some important new research led by Harvard’s Alexandra Sedlovskaya helps clarify the psychological consequences of constantly concealing part of who you are.
In the study’s initial set of experiments participants who concealed stigmatized identities (e.g. gay men) were faster than participants without stigmatized identities at categorizing attributes as part of either their “self-at-work” or “self-at-home.” The faster times suggest that when people conceal their identities it makes the distinction between their public and private selves more accesible. In two follow-up experiments the researchers found that this cognitive distinction between the selves not only led to psychological distress, it did a better job explaining participants’ distress than the broader act of concealment.
The present studies are the first to use social psychological theory and methods to test popular claims that the experience of concealing a stigmatized social identity leads to a divided self. Studies 1a and 2 established that public–private schematization occurred among people who have stigmatized concealable social identities relative to people who do not…Using two different measures of distress—perceived social stress (Study 4) and depressive symptoms (Study 5)—among samples of employed gay men, we showed in Studies 4 and 5 that public–private schematization accounted for the association between concealment and heightened distress. Cumulatively, these studies support the hypothesis that for people with stigmatized social identities, routine concealment of these identities in public contexts is associated with a greater influence of public and private social contexts on the architecture of the self-concept, with costs for psychological well-being.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t merely apply to sexual orientation. Every day people around the world are concealing their immigration status, religious beliefs, and political views, and these potentially necessary concealments will ultimately lead to substandard psychological health.
Another issue to consider is whether the development of new personas via Facebook, Twitter, or other online communities will lead to an overall increase in the stress that results from divided selves. Keeping your active membership in an online gaming community hidden from your classmates isn’t quite the same as concealing a stereotypical stigmatized identity, but it certainly seems like at the margin it could lead to a detrimental strengthening of the distinction between public and private selves (or a public self and a second public self.)
Sedlovskaya, A., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Eibach, R., LaFrance, M., Romero-Canyas, R., & Camp, N. (2013). Internalizing the Closet: Concealment Heightens the Cognitive Distinction Between Public and Private Selves. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0031179